Tuesday 2 March, 2021

Not Suitable

Seen on a favourite Donegal beach

Quote of the Day

”Man appears to be the missing link between anthropoid apes and human beings.”

  • Konrad Lorenz, 1965.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Piano Quintet, Op. 44 in E-flat | In modo d’una marcia | Un poco largemente | Agitato


Long Read of the Day

Touching the future: Stories of systems, serendipity and grace

Lovely essay by Genevieve Bell. Here’s how it begins:

The future is not a destination. We build it every day in the present. This is, perhaps, a wild paraphrasing of the acclaimed author and futurist William Gibson who, when asked what a distant future might hold, replied that the future was already here, it was just unevenly distributed. I often ponder this Gibson provocation, wondering where around me the future might be lurking. Catching glimpses of the future in the present would be helpful. But then, I think, rather than hoping to see a glimpse of the future, we could instead actively build one. Or at the very least tell stories about what it might be. Stories that unfold a world or worlds in which we might want to live – neither dystopian nor utopian, but ours…

Long read; and worth it.

How one US state is regulating facial recognition technology.

Massachusetts is one of the first states to put legislative guardrails around the use of facial recognition technology in criminal investigations.


Though police have been using facial recognition technology for the last two decades to try to identify unknown people in their investigations, the practice of putting the majority of Americans into a perpetual photo lineup has gotten surprisingly little attention from lawmakers and regulators. Until now.

Lawmakers, civil liberties advocates and police chiefs have debated whether and how to use the technology because of concerns about both privacy and accuracy. But figuring out how to regulate it is tricky. So far, that has meant an all-or-nothing approach. City Councils in Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Minneapolis and elsewhere have banned police use of the technology, largely because of bias in how it works. Studies in recent years by MIT researchers and the federal government found that many facial recognition algorithms are most accurate for white men, but less so for everyone else.

That’s why a new law in Massachusetts is interesting: It’s not all or nothing. The state is trying to strike a balance between allowing law enforcement to harness the benefits of the tool, while building in protections that might prevent the false arrests that have happened before.

A police reform bill that goes into effect in July creates new guardrails: Police first must get a judge’s permission before running a face recognition search, and then have someone from the state police, the F.B.I. or the Registry of Motor Vehicles perform the search. A local officer can’t just download a facial recognition app and do a search.

It’s a start, but not enough. I think public authorities need a statutory body that will decide whether, and under what conditions, they are allowed to procure this technology.

News site Stuff left Facebook. Seven months later, traffic is just fine and trust is higher


Very interesting talk by Sinead Boucher, an alumna of my college’s Press Fellowship Programme and now CEO of Stuff, New Zealand’s top-ranking news and media site. In July 2020, she decided that Stuff would walk away from its audience of over a million followers on Facebook and Instagram. This followed a move to stop advertising on the platform the year before after the Christchurch shootings. It was meant to be a quiet, internal experiment, but word of the decision was leaked to the public. The response has apparently been overwhelming public support, but what’s even more interesting is that Stuff’s unique visitors are up 5% year-on-year. However, she reckons that, given it was a strong news year, it would probably be more accurate to consider this as flat — i.e.no change either way.

“If we said, look, there was an election and a pandemic, we think we could have expected to grow more, then we think being off Facebook has probably cost us between 5% and 10% growth. But it hasn’t been disastrous by any means.” Instead, the site’s direct and search traffic has gone up. They’re still seeing between 10-11% of their social traffic being referred organically by Facebook because readers still share story links on their own news feeds.

This is interesting and puzzling. You may remember that a couple of weeks ago Facebook caused a stir when the Australian government pushed ahead with a Bill that would force social-media companies to engage in negotiations with conventional publishers about payment for their use of conventional news content. FB abruptly pulled all news content from its site, a move which attracted worldwide attention. After a few days, though, the company restored news content after some secret conversations with the government. It’s not clear (to me anyway) who blinked first. Were Australian politicians getting too much heat from constituents pissed off by not being able to access news on their Facebooks? Or were conventional media outlets panicked by seeing their ratings drop off a cliff? I think it’s unlikely that Facebook was much impacted by dropping news from their service: the revenue loss would have been loose change to them. Or could it be that the company was spooked by world reaction to this revelation of their untrammelled power, especially with the various actions and inquiries going on in the US, the EU and the UK? Personally I think that unlikely. Facebook has been a pathologically sociopathic organisation from the beginning: it’s never shown any sign of being really moved by public reaction to anything it’s done before.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • How famous economists might have looked — according to an AI image analysis tool. Link
  • Fisher-Price: My Home Office. Toddler’s WFH kit. Truly, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Link
  • The Mars Perseverance Rover is powered by a hardened version of the same processor that powered the first iMac. Link

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